Guest Blog by Michael Kok: The Tradition about the Apostle and Evangelist John

Below is a guest blog by Michael Kok (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield) on the topic of his new book regarding the identity and reception of the “Beloved Disciple” in the Fourth Gospel, and how the text came to be associated with the apostle and evangelist John in the centuries following its composition.

Kok is a friend and colleague of mine, whom I first met in person two years ago at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta. Kok is a Christian, and although we don’t always share the same views, I’ve found his research on the authorship, reception, and canonization of the NT Gospels to be highly relevant to my own studies. Kok also runs an academic blog–The Jesus Memoirs–which you should all check out!


Thanks to Matthew Ferguson for the invitation to discuss my book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist. The content below is reproduced by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. http://www.wipfandstock.com.

PrintThe Galilean fisherman John dropped his fishing nets and got out of his boat to become a disciple of Jesus. He was part of the inner circle of Jesus’s twelve apostles and a “pillar” of the Jerusalem Christ congregation (Mark 1:19–20; 1:29–31; 5:37–43; 9:2–9; 13:3–4; 14:33; Acts 3:1, 3, 4, 11; 4:1, 6, 13, 19; 8:14, 17, 25; Galatians 2:9). The religious establishment heaped scorn on John as an untrained layperson (idiōtēs), as literally “unlettered” (agrammatos) in Acts 4:13, but the church tradition enshrined him as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who published the Fourth Gospel and four other New Testament writings. In my work, I have attempted to answer the following questions about the church traditions:

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Guest Blog by Tyler Huson: Jotham’s Fable or Aesop’s Fable? A Discussion of Textual Relations

I’ve been pretty busy teaching in the UC Irvine Humanities Core this academic quarter, and so I have been soliciting a number of guest blogs from friends and scholars, in order to keep up regular posting activity on Κέλσος. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, shoot me an email to let me know. I welcome posts on related topics in both history and philosophy, as well as book reviews.

Below is a guest blog by Tyler Huson (an alumnus of Claremont School of Theology), on the topic of literary inter-textuality between the Book of Judges and Aesop’s fables. Since my own dissertation topic deals with generic parallels between the NT Gospels and the Life of Aesop, Huson’s research is highly relevant to my own. I greatly appreciate Huson’s contribution, and hope that readers of this blog will find it interesting and informative.


First I must say I am very pleased to contribute to this blog! I came to know Matthew Ferguson while conducting research on Dennis R. MacDonald, my NT prof at Claremont School of Theology. When googling some reviews on MacDonald’s work, Matthew’s was one of the first names that google search showed me. Matthew’s blog invited people to add him on Facebook, so I did. I appreciate Ferguson’s critiques of MacDonald because of his background in classics and his work on Greco-Roman biographies.

Although my primary research interest is Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, I have a heart for Greek literature as well. MacDonald introduced me to the world of classical literature and showed me the importance of having a Greco-Roman lens when reading the Bible. This is commonly accepted and expected with the New Testament, but it is a much more controversial for the Old Testament since the narrative within the Old Testament ends during the Persian era and the original language of the OT is Hebrew and not Greek.

Today I would like to share with you a unique case where there are clear parallels between Judges 9 and one of Aesop’s fables called “The Trees and the Olive.”

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Fictional Characters Who Appear Even in Historical Literature

This quarter I am busy teaching as part of the Humanities Core at UC Irvine. The course is inter-disciplinary, and covers literature, film, philosophy, history, and visual art. It’s a great teaching experience, especially since we have our students writing their own academic blogs about the material we cover. The theme of the curriculum is “Empire and Its Ruins,” and we are currently covering the Roman Empire, including discussion of the Roman historian Tacitus. During lecture last week, professor Andrew Zissos (who is also my dissertation advisor) discussed the speech of Calgacus, which is depicted in Tacitus’ Life of Agricola (29-32). Calgacus is described as a chieftian of the Caledonian Confederacy (which was an alliance of tribes in modern day Scotland), who fought against Rome around 83 CE. Prior to the Battle of Mons Graupius, Tacitus has Calgacus give the following speech, which voices a scathing critique of Roman imperialism:

“To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defense. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvelous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

Calgacus’ speech is famous for providing one of the most negative depictions of Rome in ancient literature. The Roman Empire cannot be satisfied by conquest either east or west. They rob the rich, and even rob the poor. Most distinctive of all, however, is Calgacus’ characterization of the Pax Romana. What the Romans call “peace” is not really harmony and prosperity, but rather a desert which has been stripped of life, so that it is no longer a threat to their rule.

During Zissos’ lecture a question arose about how Tacitus knew Calgacus’ words. He had neither witnessed the speech, nor discusses knowing anyone who had. Zissos’ response came as a surprise to many of the students: Tacitus probably imagined and invented the whole thing. Not only that, but we have no other ancient source that even mentions Calgacus. Zissos explained that Calgacus is quite possibly a fictional character. This is remarkable, given that Tacitus is even a historical author. If a historian like Tacitus could invent fictional characters and speeches in his narrative, what does this say about the possibility of fictional characters in the Gospels and Acts?

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More of the Same: Eric Bess Reviews Sean McDowell’s “The Fate of the Apostles”

Below is a guest post by my friend Eric Bess, in which he reviews Christian apologist Sean McDowell’s book The Fate of the ApostlesExamining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. McDowell defends the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection, which I have discussed in this previous blog essay. Bess critiques both the relation that McDowell draws between the persecution of the apostles and the resurrection, as well as McDowell’s interpretation of sources.


This recent book by Christian apologist Sean McDowell attempts a defense of the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection. McDowell’s overall thesis is pretty much standard fare in apologetics. As he puts it (pg. 259):

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.20.13 PM“The consistent testimony of the New Testament and the earliest sources shows that the apostles were witnesses of the risen Jesus and willingly suffered for the proclamation of the Gospel. No evidence exists that any wavered in their faith or commitment. Of course, this does not mean they were necessarily right, but it does mean they really thought Jesus had risen from the grave, and they bet their lives on it.”

McDowell devotes individual chapters to examining the evidence for the martyrdom of 14 chief apostles and assigns various levels of probability to the reliability of the traditions concerning each. Only five apostles receive relatively high probability ratings for their martyrdoms (that is, dying for their beliefs, not merely being killed), one apostle’s martyrdom is concluded to be improbable, and the remaining eight receive ‘plausibility’ ratings. Of those eight, one’s martyrdom is judged ‘more plausible than not,’ while the rest are rated ‘as plausible as not.’

There are two main problems I found with McDowell’s argument:

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Posted in Apologists, Christology, Guest Blogs, Historical Jesus, History, Miracles, Resurrection, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bayesian Analysis of Craig Keener, “Otho: A Targeted Comparison”

Recently I received feedback from ancient historian Richard Carrier about my previous review of Craig Keener’s article–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is chapter 6 of Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?.

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Carrier uses Bayes’ theorem to make an inductive critique of Keener’s analogical reasoning that, since historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius state that they consulted eyewitness and documentary sources, we can infer that they did so, and yet, even when the Gospels don’t cite such sources, we can make the same inference, based on other similarities shared with these biographers. Carrier’s analysis can be read here:

https://civitashumana.wordpress.com/2017/09/22/bayesian-analysis-of-craig-keener-otho-a-targeted-comparison/

I’ve posted it on the sister-blog of this site, Civitas Humana, due to the emphasis on probability theory and epistemology.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Apologists, Classics, Guest Blogs, Historical Jesus, History, Philosophy, Reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Review of Craig Keener, “Otho: A Targeted Comparison,” with Emphasis on the Citation of Eyewitness Sources and Textual Independence of Historical Biographers

Keener and WrightWhile doing research on my dissertation, which works to situate the NT Gospels within the generic spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, one recent publication (October 2016) that has popped up on my radar is Craig Keener and Edward Wright’s new volume Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?. Similar to my own research, Keener and Wright identify the Gospels as ancient biographies, but rather than aligning them more closely with popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance (which I think offer stronger parallels), they instead draw more parallels with historiographical biographers, such as Suetonius and Plutarch. Since I think that Keener and Wright have misplaced their emphasis, in this review I will lay out some points of contrast between the Gospels and the historical biographers Suetonius and Plutarch, which I think undermine the arguments presented in this volume. 

The present review will focus on chapter 6 of the volume–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is written by Keener himself. This chapter is particularly relevant to my own research background, since I wrote my M.A. thesis on Suetonius, and have likewise written multiple graduate papers on the Roman civil war of 69 CE, also known as the “Year of the Four Emperors.” In the chapter, Keener lays out three major sources for the emperor Otho’s brief reign–Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch–and highlights points of contact between the three accounts (while also noting that there are certain differences), which he argues demonstrate that a historiographical biographer, like Suetonius, drew upon earlier sources of information, rather than inventing material. Keener then makes the further inference that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels must have likewise relied upon earlier sources, and did not merely invent stories about Jesus. 

While certain portions of the chapter are interesting (such as Keener’s discussion on pp. 162-166 of how even Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch sometimes contradict each other, due to differences of genre, the role of memory, and rhetorical emphasis), I overall think that his targeted comparison does not offer a very good analogy for the Synoptic Gospels. In this review, I will focus on how historiographical biographers are far more prone to cite their written and oral sources (including eyewitnesses) than anything that is found in the Gospels, and likewise on how there is a much stronger case to be made that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch are actually independent accounts (adding more weight to the inference that they are independently corroborating historical events). I will also discuss how the Synoptic Gospels are far more textually dependent (suggesting that they don’t have as many independent sources of information, and sometimes are even redacting each other). As a final point, I will respond to some criticism that Keener presents against comparing the Gospels with the genre of the ancient novel.

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Change of Plans

I have some unfortunate news to report, followed by some good news. The unfortunate news is that my debate with Andrew Pitts, which was scheduled for next week, fell through, due to the fact that we couldn’t agree upon the debate prompt for the discussion. I had wanted the discussion to focus on 1) the literary genre of the Gospels, and 2) how the question of genre affects their historical reliability. On the other hand, Pitts wanted to focus solely on the question of genre, noting that he wasn’t sure if his research lends itself to answering the question of historical reliability. Since I thought that a debate solely on genre, without the component of historical reliability, would be of less interest to readers of this blog, and since we couldn’t agree upon the direction of the conversation, the debate was canceled.

The good news, however, is that cancelling the debate frees me up to focus on other work, and I have decided to use that time to write book reviews. I noted in my previous announcement about the debate, that there are four new publications by Christian authors on my radar, one of which is Craig Keener’s recent volume Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?. Since my dissertation focuses on situating the Gospels within the genre of ancient biography, Keener’s new volume is certainly of interest to my current research. I decided to review chapter 6 of the volume–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is written by Keener himself. This chapter is particularly relevant to my own research background, since I wrote my M.A. thesis on Suetonius, and have likewise written multiple graduate papers on the Roman civil war of 69 CE, also dubbed the “Year of the Four Emperors.” My review of Keener’s chapter can be found in the subsequent post.

-Matthew Ferguson

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